Photo Jason Kuffer
By Claudia J. Gonzalez
MERCED, Calif. – On a recent morning Danny Kusis walked into the Public Defender’s office in downtown Merced. The 50-year-old Kusis was there to take advantage of a new law allowing California residents charged with non-violent felonies to reduce their convictions to misdemeanors.
For Kusis and thousands more across the state, that opens the door to employment, financial aid and the right to vote, all of which are denied to those with criminal records.
“I found out about Prop 47 while I was in jail,” said Kusis, referring to the new law, otherwise known as The Safe Schools and Neighborhoods Act, passed by 60 percent of voters in November 2014. “My probation officer suggested I come to the Public Defender’s office and apply to get my felony reclassified.”
Kusis had been arrested last year and spent several months in jail for a minor assault charge that later got dropped to felony vandalism. “I got in trouble when I was younger, but for 10 years I had no problems,” said Kusis. The tall, tanned and tattooed Merced native is now an auto mechanic hoping to get back on his feet. “Getting in trouble this time around, over nothing, really messed up my life.”
Prop 47 allows for non-violent crimes such as personal drug possession and petty theft charges to be reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors, therefore alleviating overpopulation and excess spending in county jails and state prisons, at the same time giving thousands of people second opportunities. People convicted of violent or sex offenses are ineligible to apply for this relief.
A recent column in the LA Daily News noted that California has “4,800 additional penalties for having a criminal record. Most (73 percent) are lifetime bans, and 58 percent restrict employment.”
Merced’s Chief Deputy Public Defender, Vincent Andrade, says he has spoken to approximately 300 individuals regarding Prop. 47 in the last couple of months. Andrade has drop-in hours at his office located at 2150 M St on Mondays from 10am to 12pm for anyone who qualifies under the law.
He noted that while there is not an official approximation of how many individuals qualify for Prop. 47 in Merced County, he estimated the number to be around 6,000. “I was told that in Los Angeles, over 300,000 people qualify,” added Andrade. “But Merced County is small. Our population is only around 240,000 and half of those people are children.”
The Public Defender’s Office began meeting with potential applicants as early as December of last year. “I see around 10 people every week,” said Andrade. “The application process is long and takes time because it’s on a case by case basis.”
Still, some say there is not enough information being distributed about Prop 47. During Kusis’s visit he mentioned he was “glad that Prop 47 exists,” but added a caveat. “The problem is that we don’t know about it. I had to find out about it through my P.O. [It’s] funny because law enforcement hates Prop 47.”
Local organizing group Merced Organizing Project (MOP), which led a pro-Prop 47 campaign last fall in the county, also feels there is misinformation around the new law. “Law enforcement officials are misinforming and scaring the public,” said Crissy Gallardo, a community organizer for MOP. “They want to blame all crime on Prop 47 now.”
“Some of the stories being attributed to Prop 47 are just plain ridiculous,” added Gallardo.
According to an investigative report by the Merced Sun-Star, in the last couple of months, booking in Merced County has actually fallen about 13 percent as a result of Prop 47. Although the decrease has alleviated overcrowding in county jails, Sheriff Vern Warnke continues to speak negatively about the law.
In February, MOP launched its Live Free Merced campaign, which aims to ensure proper implementation of Prop 47 and that it reaches all who qualify. The campaign is also working to push back against the misinformation they see surrounding the measure.
“Our Live Free campaign is being run by formerly incarcerated individuals who were granted second chances and are now very successful,” said Gallardo. “They are in college and have good jobs so they want to help other community members get their lives back.”
“The only way people are going to change their lives around is if they get that second opportunity,” continued Gallardo. “Prop 47 plays a major role in that.”
Working closely with the Public Defender’s Office, in particularly, Deputy Chief Andrade, Live Free Merced has planned a series of informational forums and application clinics for the rest of 2015.
Live Free Merced’s first Prop 47 forum is scheduled for May 20th from 6:30 to 7:30pm at Merced College.
Los Banos, situated in West Merced County, also holds its own application hours for residents that can’t easily access the Merced office.